Patricia Wilbarger, M.Ed, OTR, FAOTA coined the term “sensory diet” and it has been traditionally used in occupational therapy when using a sensory integration or sensory modulation framework. A “sensory diet” refers to those experiences an individual’s system “needs” in order to self-organize and function throughout each day. Although these experiences are typically engaged in without the conscious awareness of their complexity or of the purposes they serve, it is often beneficial to facilitate an increased awareness of one’s unique system tendencies, patterns and preferences. With this increased awareness, it is generally useful to support the consumer and/or caregivers in the creation of an individualized sensory diet.
When creating a “sensory diet” it is important to assist each individual in considering meaningful and purposeful ideas for both preventative purposes and for use during crisis states. Practice may also be necessary with some of the chosen techniques, in order to experience the full benefit. Creating a daily or weekly schedule incorporating those things the person finds most beneficial is one of the ways to begin planning for the implementation of the sensory diet. Once in use, it should be initially and then periodically monitored to determine if any changes need to be made.
When an individual is unable to create a sensory diet, even with assistance, therapists and caregivers must collaborate and gather as much information from the consumer as possible. Some of the ways to communicate with individuals with cognitive or physical limitations may include: the observation of body language, the use of equipment (e.g., word boards or adapted computers), the use of assessment tools, the assistance of caregivers who are more skilled at communicating with the consumer, and through collaboration with caregivers to collect a comprehensive history – with the consumer’s permission.
Instead of waiting for an individual to become “ready” or “safe enough” for therapy it is typically helpful to provide some options to facilitate the grounding or self-organizing of one’s system. Occupational therapists have the education and training necessary to provide such therapeutic exchanges and are instrumental in providing the consumer, treatment team and caregivers with such valuable information. Currently, sensory diets are being created and utilized in innovative ways across all age groups and among a variety of populations in psychosocial practice. Sensory approaches are being included in individualized treatment plans, crisis prevention plans, daily programming and in a host of other creative ways. This increased sensitivity to each individual’s sensory tendencies, patterns and preferences has also assisted in avoiding crises and in reducing the use of restraint and seclusion within mental health settings.